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Horseback tours are trampling seagrass in Palma Sola Bay. That might get them banned

An issue that has nagged Manatee County officials for years may finally have a solution.

The Board of County Commissioners on Thursday afternoon voted unanimously to direct their legal team to conduct research and provide options for more regulation of horseback riding in “sensitive” bodies of water. A new ordinance could be modeled after Pinellas County, which voted last month to ban horseback riding in the waters of Tampa Bay in the name of environmental protection.

With water quality issues continuing to plague the Palma Sola Causeway, Manatee officials say horseback riding and the droppings the animals inevitably leave behind certainly play a role.

Over the past few months, the Florida Department of Health has issued several no-swim advisories at the Palma Sola south beach due to high levels of enterococci, a bacteria that is often associated with human and/or wildlife feces.

In its Oct. 22 presentation on the issue of horseback riding, Pinellas County staff argued that the presence of enterocci bacteria was directly linked to the presence of horses, which have also led to “significant seagrass damage and water quality violations.”

Commissioners took a closer look at the issue in a July 30 Council of Governments meeting but determined that prohibitive action couldn’t be enforced within the Florida Department of Transportation’s right-of-way along Manatee Avenue. But Pinellas County’s ordinance has the backing of a different state agency.

“I’m looking at this purely from an environmental standpoint. I think the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s involvement was instrumental in helping Pinellas get done what they got done,” said Commissioner Betsy Benac, who first raised the issue.

“The grass is being trampled. We really need to look at the Palma Sola Causeway and see what we can do there because it’s a mess,” Commissioner Vanessa Baugh added.

County Attorney Mitchell Palmer told the board that his staff has already begun requesting documents related to Pinellas County’s ordinance, including the past five years of water quality testing conducted by the Department of Health. He said it was his opinion that “ancient” laws that allow FDOT to identify horses as a means of transportation shouldn’t apply to the recreational activity that occurs along the Palma Sola Causeway.

“The transportation code deals with horses when they were a mode of travel to convey people and goods. Here we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about recreational activities in a sensitive body of water,” Palmer told the board. “In my mind, that’s a completely different analysis than looking at the transportation aspect.”

County attorneys will present legal options to commissioners at a future meeting.

Ryan Callihan is the Bradenton Herald’s County Reporter, covering local government and politics. On the weekends, he also covers breaking news. Ryan is a graduate of USF St. Petersburg.
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